AZLI, who has just turned 17, was worried and sad about everything in his life — his grades in school, his future, relationships, etc.
His first attempt to get help was a visit to the school counsellor to share his emotional distress. What the counsellor told him involved the idea that there might be something wrong with his faith in Islam and identity as a Muslim. At the end of the session, he felt that there was something that he might have done to upset God. It made him feel worthless.
Perhaps, he thought, self hurting could give him a momentary escape from the anxiety he was fighting constantly. So, he tried cutting his arm deliberately, a body part which he could easily hide with his shirt sleeve.
Fortunately, this “coping mechanism” did not last long. On the day he felt ill before school and on his mother’s insistence that he should visit the clinic, the doctor saw the scars on his arm. He was referred to a psychologist.
Youth mental illness is becoming a major problem around the world. Self-harm, which is a secret and compulsive manifestation of depression and anxiety, is on the rise among our young people. It is a disturbing symptom that plagues millions of teenagers around the world. The recent incident of the Form Two student who had attempted suicide after being accused of stealing her teacher’s iPhone and died a few days later, is an example of how serious the problem can be.
The World Health Organisation’s report on Health for the World’s Adolescents in 2014 highlighted that depression is the main cause of illness and disability. Suicide, according to the same report, is the main cause of death — after traffic injuries and HIV/AIDS — for young people aged 10 to 19.
In Malaysia, the Health Ministry statistics also reveal a worsening state of mental health problems among Malaysian students, from one in 10 individuals in 2011 to one in five in 2016.
A nationwide screening conducted by the ministry has found more than 100,000 fourth formers face mental health issues. It is claimed that the contributors of stress were personal and family problems.
Adults are saying that adolescents today are more fragile, less resilient and more overwhelmed than their parents when they were growing up. But, being a teenager is more draining today than ever before. For them, it is like a full-time job going to school and doing schoolwork with pressure and expectations to perform well. The biggest variable is how these teens navigate this stage in their lives.
Spending time with other people is one of the best predictor for psychological well-being and protection against mental health issues. This generation of young people grow up with smartphones. They are not spending much time with their friends and family and interacting face-to-face. The influence of social media can be exhausting too. For instance, a fight with friends can be documented online for hours or days after the incident.
At this age, their minds crave for stimulation and their emotional reactions are by nature urgent and sometimes debilitating. With constant pressure — from their phones, their relationships, the way things are today — they are like little volcanoes waiting to erupt.
The responsibility to address the needs of children with social, emotional, and behavioural challenges often falls on teachers as the school is where many of them are spending a large portion of their day. Many teachers do not feel equipped to meet their students’ emotional needs, which results in many of them being under-referred for mental health treatment.
In Azli’s case, his first attempt to get help was a failure because of the stigma attached to mental illness among Muslims. If you need treatment, it means there might be something wrong with your faith in the religion in the first place.
There is the need to respond to students’ mental health more urgently, noting the important role schools can play to help out. Teachers should be trained to recognise symptoms; to educate students about mental health; to administer guidance and support, and to refer students to outside services for special assistance when necessary.
This also amplifies the call to incorporate learning that focuses on students’ mental health and well-being into daily classroom activities — something that can be beneficial for all students, not just those with diagnosable conditions.
One way classroom teachers can make mental health a more robust part of the school day is by integrating mental-health topics, including self-esteem, body image, resilience and life-coping skills, into the existing school curricula.
Society, too, must play a role. Adults must be fully aware of the young people in their surroundings and know how to overcome the obstacles that prevent these youngsters from seeking help.
If you know that a young person is self-harming, the first question to ask is: “What can I do to help?” Avoid showing shock or any reaction that makes the teenager feel ashamed. When they display very raw emotions — they shouldn’t be told they are doing something wrong or told off for doing something dangerous or against the religion. They should be calmly taken to one side and asked whether they are all right.
The writer left her teaching career more than 20 years ago to take on different challenges beyond the
conventional classroom. She is NSTP’s education editor for English language content